Pete, Wes and Ryan break down Sunday's 30-20 Packers victory over the Lions. (Dec. 28, 2014) Weston Hodkiewicz/Press-Gazette Media
As the cart disappeared into darkness, few on the Green Bay Packers' sideline thought they'd see Aaron Rodgers re-emerge from the home tunnel Sunday night.
And then it happened.
As the final notch in an MVP-caliber season, Rodgers walked back onto the field, shook off his aggravated left calf injury and propelled the Packers to a 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions to capture the franchise's fourth consecutive NFC North Division championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The chances of that scenario playing out didn't appear promising when the quarterback crumpled to the ground after a 4-yard touchdown pass with 2 minutes, 24 seconds left in the first half. With the 78,408 inside Lambeau Field library-level quiet, Rodgers walked directly to a nearby cart and was transported to the locker room to a chorus of "MVP" chants.
Backup Matt Flynn ran out the clock on the first half before returning for the first series of the second half. After getting cleared to return to the sideline, Rodgers waited until the offense went three-and-out before poking his head back out of the tunnel.
As players heard the rumblings of "Twelve is going to go," Lambeau Field erupted. Rodgers approached Flynn and told him three simple words: "I got it."
"It gave me chills," defensive end Datone Jones said. "We know what type of player he is and how hard he works. For us to see him battle through any injury, it's kind of like a gut check. It's time to go. He's coming back. He's ready to go to war. We owe it to him to go to war."
Rodgers was limited with what he could do outside the pocket, but was as efficient as he was after first straining the muscle in last Sunday's 20-3 win over Tampa Bay by completing 17 of 22 passes for 226 yards with three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).
Unlike the past two months, the Packers deferred until the second half after winning the opening coin toss. The defense responded with a quick three-and-out and continued to apply consistent pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was erratic in completing only 20 of 41 passes.
The Packers knew establishing the run would be key to seizing momentum, especially with what Rodgers was dealing with. The offense ran for 112 yards in the first half alone, including 61 on its first possession of the game.
That defensive front led by Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah and DeAndre Levy forced Green Bay's offense to hemorrhage in a 19-7 loss at Ford Field in Week 3, but the offensive line negated the pressure this time around in allowing only one sack and two quarterback hits.
"They're obviously extremely talented, but we know that this style of defense they play, we know there's a certain set of play calls that will benefit us," center Corey Linsley said. "I think that we ran some plays that aren't necessarily our bread and butter and we executed them very well. Because they have to defend that, that opened up our bread and butter."
Rodgers didn't complete a pass in the first quarter, but Micah Hyde returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown for the Packers' first score. The offense slowly began to take form with coach Mike McCarthy incorporating more quick passes and calls from a pistol formation to keep things in front of his quarterback.
The Packers jumped out to a 14-0 lead when Rodgers stepped up to complete a touchdown to Randall Cobb on the play he aggravated the calf injury. The defense appeared to make a stop after he departed on third-and-13, but Brad Jones' roughing the passer penalty continued the Lions' drive.
Stafford eventually hit Calvin Johnson on a 20-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 14-7. He then tied it after a 4-yard lob to Johnson on the Lions' first possession of the second half. Rodgers returned following that play and reset things for Green Bay.
He navigated a seven-play, 60-yard drive that was capped by a 13-yard Cobb touchdown off a slant. The Packers had a chance with a Mason Crosby 52-yard field goal try at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Lions blocked it.
Packers safety Morgan Burnett recovered a Matthew Stafford fumble on a handoff to Joique Bell on the Lions' first play to immediately give the offense the ball back. Jordy Nelson's 15-yard cross made him the first Packers receiver to surpass 1,500 yards in a season and set up a 1-yard Rodgers run for a touchdown.
"I think it's obvious," McCarthy said. "Aaron Rodgers is the leader of our football team. He's in my opinion the most valuable player in the National Football League this year. I think what he demonstrated tonight in a must-win game against an excellent opponent, I think it's clear what he means to our football team."
Rodgers said the idea of a possible bye week weighed into his decision to return to the field Sunday even though Cobb, right guard T.J. Lang and Linsley admitted they didn't anticipate him returning.
When he did, it sent shockwaves through both sides of the ball. The defense held the Lions to 313 total yards and forced a fumble when the offense needed it. In need of a stop late, Datone Jones forced Stafford into intentional grounding inside Detroit's end zone for a safety that extended Green Bay's lead to 30-14.
There was no question the energy level jumped when Rodgers returned. His performance was near-perfect, completing 11-of-13 passes for 129 yards in the second half.
Rodgers finishes the regular season with a 112.2 passer rating after completing 341-of-520 passes for 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns and five interceptions.
"The guy could have easily thrown in the towel because that's a tough Detroit defense, we are already in the playoffs. But he didn't," defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "If there was a word of a greater magnitude than respect, that's what I have for Aaron because he laid it out on the line for his brothers and we had to respond. We had to respond."
Rodgers and the Packers now have a full bye week to rest after extending their winning streak to 24 over the Lions in Wisconsin. They'll host either Dallas, Carolina or Arizona at 12:05 p.m. Jan. 11 at Lambeau Field, where they are 8-0 this season.
Afterward, McCarthy said he felt the Packers' physicality was superior to their opponent. They hope to carry the momentum of a fourth consecutive NFC North title forward in the win-or-go-home postseason.
"It's our first goal," Lang said. "The first goal is always to win the division. But we don't hang banners around here for division championships. We've still got a long way to go. But being 5-1 in the division and 8-0 at home, winning four straight, you could say we kind of own the division."